David Greenberg is the author of the new book Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency. His other books include Nixon's Shadow and Calvin Coolidge, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Republic, where he was acting editor, Politico, and Slate. He lives in New York City.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Republic of Spin, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?
A: My first book was called Nixon’s Shadow. It’s not a biography of Nixon but a study of Nixon as a symbol…I came to see that although Nixon exemplified that [focus on image], it didn’t originate with him. Politics in the 20th century were consumed with anxieties about authenticity, and the way the tools of image-making—spin—were threatening to corrupt democracy.
No one had written a book about the White House spin machine, and pulled it all together into a single narrative…
As for what surprised me, I found that the standard narratives about certain historical episodes were wrong.
On an individual level, you could tell a story about how my research [shows] revisionist portraits: George Creel, who ran the Committee on Public Information, a World War I propaganda agency.
In the history books, Creel is made out to be a right-wing monster, whipping up hatred of Germans. In fact, Creel was a liberal guy attacked more by the right wing for being insufficiently jingoistic.
He was not wild and out of control. There were some excesses, but the backlash against Creel was buyer’s remorse about World War I. The war didn’t turn out the way we wanted, and people were looking for a scapegoat. The story of Creel was told wrong, over and over…
In one chapter of history after another, I found significant twists. Many historians suffer from propaganda anxiety. They’re not always clear-eyed in assessing [this issue]. We have an ambivalent attitude toward spin—we denounce spin doctors but deep down we like it if it’s wielded by politicians we support.
Just today, there was an article about negative ads about Trump. It was free of the scolding tone you get when you’re told about negative advertisements against Obama. It’s not the negative ads that people are against, it’s the negative ads against their candidates. If it’s deployed by a candidate or president we support, we applaud it, and don’t realize it’s spin.
Also, one reason I read the sources differently is that I don’t see spin as an inherently bad thing.
Q: I wanted to go through a few of the presidents you discuss in the book. You write, “More than a tactic, publicity thoroughly informed [Theodore] Roosevelt’s conception of the presidency…” Why did you opt to begin with Theodore Roosevelt, and how did his approach to publicity differ from those of his predecessors?
A: That sentence captures the reason I started with him. I don’t suggest in the book that presidents before Roosevelt were uninterested in managing their message or image. They were. It’s important in politics.
But what you see with Roosevelt is a new concept of the presidency, where the presidency is the driver of social reform.
For most of the 19th century, excluding wartime and crises, Congress was the seat of legislation and of reform. If you were a Washington reporter in the 19th century, you didn’t go to the White House, you went to Congress. That’s where the action was.
Presidents before TR started to arrogate more power to the White House, but really Roosevelt wanted to do great things as president, and realized he needed the public. It was not just publicity in terms of self-aggrandizement, but making his agenda public—his use of the bully pulpit…staging publicity stunts.
He had an eye on public opinion that his predecessors just didn’t. It was tied to what he wanted to achieve in policy. It is now the norm for a president. Look at [Supreme Court nominee] Merrick Garland with Obama—there are all kinds of dimensions to a publicity campaign.
I feel a lot of that apparatus begins with Roosevelt—before him, almost none of it exists.
Q: Let’s look at his cousin, FDR. In the book, you write that “Franklin Roosevelt proved the equal to his late cousin in the arts of modern communication…” What were some of the hallmarks of FDR’s success in communicating with the American public and the world?
A: FDR is a master. There are several hallmarks. One, he really seemed to enjoy and care about the public and what it thought, not in a slavish pandering way but wanting public support to sustain him.
He was trying to make the call for a more aggressive posture against Germany, and said, I can only go as fast as the public will let me. There’s a fireside chats chapter, where I tried to convey his sense of communicating with the public…
For Roosevelt, communication really was important. When he did the fireside chats, he would visualize people from Dutchess County and imagine them as the intended audience of his speech. He transformed presidential speaking—he would [use a] very easy, conversational way.
FDR reinvented the form of communicating in a way that’s suited to the media. Also, in his easy relations with reporters, in his use of polling, one can look at that cynically, but he was just fascinated to know what people were thinking, and felt that that’s part of what democracy is.
Q: Getting back to Nixon, you write, “White House image making and message control—and concerns about it—reached full flower during the presidency of Richard Nixon.” How did Nixon’s approach resemble those of previous presidents, and how did it differ?
A: I think what Nixon does is he puts the White House on a permanent spin footing. Certainly with Nixon--this had been gradually building for some time—there is no initiative undertaken without a significant game plan, pages on pages detailing who will talk to which reporters, a whole strategy for everything he wanted to achieve.
After this, spin was never absent from presidential considerations. It had been present since TR, but there were times when it was not in the forefront.
With Nixon, it pervades White House operations. Even when Watergate happened, his immediate response was to think of it as a public relations problem. He couldn’t see it as a scandal, a moral or ethical error.
Q: How would you describe Barack Obama’s approach to spin, and what do you see looking ahead?
A: I do have a section on Obama. It’s a little shorter. I feel as a historian we’re still close to it. I describe Obama’s approach as the spin of no spin. Like other candidates, he very deliberately tried to fashion an image of “authenticity”—it’s a very problematic term. He operates at a time when the public is fully aware of spin, and is sick of [it]. We crave politicians we feel are going to give it to us straight. He was very good in 2008 in fashioning that image for himself.
The truth is…I don’t mean to say politicians are phony, but there is a craft in their photo ops, Obama as much as anyone…The spin of no spin is great in certain contexts, but didn’t serve him as well as he had hoped….
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Promoting the book! I have a few other ideas in the works…
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Another thing I tried to communicate is how much I’ve tried to make this a narrative that contains analysis and understanding of spin. The narrative is three stories: the presidents, the spin doctors, the writers and thinkers who comment on spin and its implications for democracy. The braided three strands give the book its forward propulsion.
I’m talking about democracy, propaganda, and the fact that there are these characters. You see across the 20th century a new political type, experts in words and symbols who are now dominant in American politics. The rise of that type is what holds the book together.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb